Harbaugh, Michigan, And Going Home … Again

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Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can, actually, go home again.

Wolfe’s novel in 1940, published posthumously, was titled You Can’t Go Home Again, which makes sense considering the content, but wasn’t written with any futuristic inkling of Michigan football and Jim Harbaugh.

It what has been the absolute worst-kept secret in college football over the last month as regular folk waited for the Bruce Feldmans of the world … and only the Bruce Feldmans of the world … to confirm something most everyone deeply involved with Michigan football knew, Jim Harbaugh will be leaving the world of the NFL (yes, NFL Reporter Guy — really) for the head football post at the University of Michigan.

On the scale of big hires, this is the largest one in college football since Urban Meyer took over the gig at Ohio State. One could argue Chip Kelly leaving Oregon falls into that list, but since that’s more of a departure than a hire-in, we’re going with Meyer.

How Michigan got the best coach that wasn’t even on the market is a wild insight into media, football, passion, opportunity … and a soft spot for home.


The Prologue

It was May of 2007 when a former Michigan Wolverines quarterback lobbed a random salvo at the school regarding academics. At the time, it was more seen as, “Wow, I can’t believe an alum would jam his former school like that.”

In hindsight, it was the beginning.

On Halloween of this year, it was announced that Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon was going to resign, and it was a week and a half later where the new Michigan president by way of Brown University, Mark Schlissel, had remarked about academics, sports, and not fully understanding the scope of it. Schlissel spoke about a commitment to learning yet also being a bit put off by football and the academic procedures that allowed certain athletes to get into Michigan, whereas they otherwise might not.

Most of this went under the national radar, because … well … articles about academics don’t get clicks on your ESPN website. Whether or not Harbaugh knew Schlissel or not, I have no idea. But there was an abstract marrying of ideals that went into both comments. They both saw eye-to-eye from afar.

Harbaugh wasn’t going to work for Brandon, a man of Michigan football timber but one too involved in the program. Whether or not Brandon offered Harbaugh the Michigan job when he hired Brady Hoke four years ago is up for debate — only those two men and a few others know, but the reality is that a marrying of the two wasn’t going to happen. Harbaugh wasn’t letting the AD in the film room; Brandon wasn’t hiring a coach he couldn’t micromanage.

At any rate, when Brandon “resigned,” the possibility of this all became real. Interim AD Jim Hackett had no choice but to fire Hoke, bowl game or not. It just became easier when the bowl game was missed to get it done earlier. Whether you think Hoke deserved more time or not is up to you, but absent of that, Michigan was going to lose some serious money had it kept him on, and sports is a bottom-line business that answers to wins, losses, and like all others, money.


The Courtship

If there was a misstep in Michigan’s process, it was here. Michigan was able to find out early on that Harbaugh would have interest in the job, but there would be no discussing it until after the San Francisco 49ers’ season had ended or at least had ended in terms of playoff opportunity.

This is where Michigan doled out six figures to a search firm, which seems to be something you’re going to want to get involved in if you can. Two things with a search firm:

1. It must be nice to be an athletic director and cut a six-figure check to a group of people to do your job for you.

2. Pay me 10 cents, I can tell you that you should call this guy named “Jim Harbaugh.”

In all reality, the search firm was run by a Michigan alum, so basically it was glad-handing someone and partly a shrewd but expensive diversion from what was really going on. Michigan needed a list of guys who might be interested in the position if, say, the 49ers made an inexplicable Super Bowl run. At that (hypothetical) point, UM couldn’t have waited that long, and Harbaugh probably wouldn’t have been available anyway, because whoever in the SF organization hates him, they’d have sucked it up for a ring.

Still, that’s a mother lode of loot to spend.

After San Francisco was eliminated from the playoffs, though, then the push was on. Harbaugh would be open to it. So you at least discuss it. Who cares about what everyone’s “timetable” was? If you can’t ask the prettiest girl in the room out until she comes home for summer vacation, do you just take a lesser gal out and give up hope just to avoid waiting?

No, you don’t.

At some point, the number will be revealed, but that’s not the important part. Michigan can spend whatever it wants on a coach because it has that much money. Harbaugh can have as much power as he wants because college … unlike the NFL … affords that latitude. Hell, one has to think he’d have a hand in choosing the athletic director, and choosing your boss means you’re playing with house freaking money as long as you want to be there.

The pull of Michigan was resurrecting his old school on his terms, both academically and otherwise. Michigan folks, depending on who you talk to, will say that bridges were burned when Harbaugh went all “12-pack of Steel Reserve” on the academic policies at Michigan in 2007. Losing has a way of making people rethink their stances on what they were mad about. Wins, losses, and money, man.

Jim Harbaugh could go home again... and he just did. He now follows in Bo Schembechler's footsteps by becoming Michigan's newest head football coach.

Jim Harbaugh could go home again… and he just did. He now follows in Bo Schembechler’s footsteps by becoming Michigan’s newest head football coach.


The Media Dance

A much less important part of this story is how it was reported. We trust, especially in a context of reporting straight news, that reporters are on the level. The level was missing liquid this time around. The thing you get to learning about national media, especially in professional sports, is that their obligations go far beyond “the truth.”

National reporters on stories such as this one get their info mostly from agents with the exception of the few that have random contacts closer than that. With agents comes a clear “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” reality.

If a representative of a school calls to inquire about the interest of a coach, the agent can funnel it to any old media member and potentially get his client a raise. If the media member is willing to put out that tripe as something of “Michigan is interested in Coach X” and it ends up getting Coach X a raise, or even if not, the agent knows the media member is in play and will funnel information that they hear/see in exchange for pumping out a story that basically is half-true to help Coach X, and thus help said agent get a raise.

So you get things like Gil Brandt firing off that David Cutcliffe of Duke was getting an offer and turning it down, and then apparently Michigan had to “settle” for this Harbaugh guy.

Meanwhile, a select few that work in the media really were on top of this thing. Director of Programming/Sports Content Director at WPGB and 970 ESPN Pittsburgh, Gregg Henson, was all over it from the start. Those who cover Michigan and only Michigan did a respectable job to say the least. The national media was horrific in this search, first refusing to believe it was possible because God forbid anyone take employment opportunities with their heart rather than with The Shield in mind. What was much worse on the part of the national press was this tendency to tweet out any old name they were fed from any old agent, and then get someone a raise.

Whoever Henson (whom I knew nothing about before this, but he’s an honest dude) knows runs deep. He was the lone media person at least I saw that had this story way back before the firing of Brandon. This is a nod to how observers who really want to know should approach these things in the future: go with the guys that cover the teams year-round, not the national media, which is nothing but an echo chamber for things that happened several days or weeks ago.


The Present

When Harbaugh is introduced this week as the head coach, a tectonic plate shift will happen in the Big Ten. Michigan has a coach to fit its prestige, and one not only of high football coaching acumen, but one of high character. This isn’t to say that Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke did not have high character, but Harbaugh carries on that tradition and is a better coach than both of them. (For the record, I know nothing about Rodriguez.)

As news started to trickle out from the obvious sources — the ones looked to by people following the search and those needing national media confirmation — recruits started to tweet. Michigan was an option again. This is why you wait for the guy you want, because teenagers are fickle, and they change their minds overnight.

That said, anyone honest with themselves knows this is a rebuilding project for Michigan. Recruiting has fallen off, and as the tenure of Hoke became shaky, the elite recruits that were left decided to rethink things. If you’re into star rankings, it wasn’t an inspiring class to begin with. If you’re not, which is perfectly fine, it still was a patchwork group until Harbaugh Happens.

Then, there’s the fact that Michigan hasn’t been very good recently. The development of quarterbacks has been abhorrent, and over the last few years of Hoke’s tenure, it looked like a friendly schedule and the rare electricity of Denard Robinson were more responsible for that first 11-2 season than any changing of the guard or a new mentality.

Harbaugh enters with not a ton to work with, but good coaches can take their guys and beat you with them, then turn around and take your guys and beat you with them. If anyone is that guy, it’s Jim Harbaugh. The biggest thing Harbaugh adds is his mentality. Remember, this is the same guy who took a woeful Stanford outfit with recruiting restrictions and took on five-star Southern California under Pete Carroll, upsetting the Trojans as a 41-point underdog in 2007. Had Michigan not lost to Appalachian State, it might be the biggest upset in recent college football history.

Whether it’s giving then-Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz the business or Carroll a world of problems at USC, Harbaugh has sack, and isn’t afraid. Michigan needs some of that. He won’t be calling Ohio State “Ohio,” because he doesn’t care about what anything looks like to anyone else. He’ll attack that rivalry head on, just as he did as a player.

Michigan will be better this year, and the recruiting class will be fine. Go ahead and promise yourself that.


The Future

Michigan becomes a player again. While everyone else was out there saying the school couldn’t make the hire it needed, UM went ahead behind the scenes and made the hire it had to make. While the popular thought is that Hackett takes over as full-time athletic director, it’s not a guarantee this is something he wants long term.

As for the program, it finally finds someone with the pedigree, and most importantly, the attitude you need to win championships. Harbaugh may as well get a key to the city before coaching a spring game. Michigan is that starved for a winner, and Jim will be a pseudo-god if he’s able to bring that feeling back to Ann Arbor … especially if he does it his way.

Michigan will need to deal annually with rumors of Jim going back to the NFL, especially if or when the Wolverines win anything of substance, but Jim is cut from a different cloth than the media will make everything out to be. He marches to the beat of his own drum, and he’ll stick around at Michigan until he’s done doing whatever it is he personally finds are his goals to accomplish. If that takes the rest of his career, then he’ll stay the rest of his career.

How Michigan pulled this off was nothing other than being genuine. The people in charge of the process found out if Harbaugh may be interested. He was. They did their due diligence in the event something came down that prohibited him from taking the job in a timely matter. They smoke-screened the national media enough to not let the machinations of this get out too far before it happened. They rightfully let Harbaugh know Michigan needed him and that he’d love being there.

Michigan waited on the pretty girl to get home for the summer from college.

In this story, the pretty girl says, “yes.” And she adds, “Go Blue.”


You actually CAN always go home again, in spite of Wolfe’s novel. Hell, we realize this yearly around this time, when for once, it doesn’t matter if we went away to school across the country or took a job in another state, forever chasing our own dreams.

Whether inconvenient or otherwise, Christmas time makes us pause, turn off the cell phone, put away the social media, and put our family first … probably the way it was intended to be in the first place before all these bells and whistles existed. Whether just out of jail, school, working 500 miles away, or just next door because you could never leave … you can always go home again.

For Ann Arbor, its new favorite son just did.